Rico Altman-Merino

Tseva Adom: Terrorism and Its Anxiety


ISSUE 10 | OCCUPATIONS | NOV 2011

But, judging his own paintings, [Francis Bacon] turns away from those which are, in this manner, too 'sensational' [...]
As soon as there is horror, a narrative will reintroduce itself, and you'll have missed the scream.
The maximum of violence will be condensed in those figures that are seated or crouching, who suffer no torture, no brutality, to whom nothing visible occurs, and who effectuate all the better the force of painting.

Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation


The Israeli town of Sderot lies one mile outside of the Gaza Strip, in the western Negev Desert. Its name, meaning “avenues,” was bestowed in the 1950s to evoke the busy streets and rows of trees that would signal the fulfillment of the Zionist dream of “making the desert bloom.” It lies partly on the land of the defunct Arab city of Najd, whose residents fled or were expelled to the coast after the area was captured by Jewish Defense forces in 1948. The city was originally home mostly to Kurdish and Persian Jews fleeing Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, followed by Moroccan Jews and, most recently, ex-Soviet and Ethiopian Jews. In 1997, a number of Palestinian Arabs relocated to Sderot from Gaza after the discovery of their collaborations with Israeli intelligence made it impossible to remain in their communities. Sderot is best known as a frequent target for rockets launched by terrorist groups in Gaza. In 2000, the town’s population was about 24,000; today it is closer to 19,000. Despite its size, it is known darkly by some Israelis as “the biggest bull's-eye on the map of Israel.”

It is easy to forget just how tiny a space is taken up by Israel and the Palestinian territories. The width of Israel between the westernmost point of the northern West Bank and the Mediterranean is approximately the same distance as my morning commute. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Al Aqsa Brigades, and other terrorist groups began launching Qassam rockets at Sderot in 2001 as part of the Second Intifada (2000-2005) and have continued since then, though irregularly and sometimes haltingly. During the first eight years, 10,000 rockets fell in the western Negev, an average of more than three per day. Rocket fire intensified with the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007 and ebbed after Israel’s intense bombing campaign in Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009 known as Operation Cast Lead. Today, rockets are much rarer than they were just a few years ago. At its worst, 300 rockets fell on Sderot in a two week period in May 2007, or 21 per day. As of the original drafting of this article (November 3), the most recent rocket attack on Sderot was five days ago, though a number of others have hit surrounding areas more recently.

In 2002, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) installed a radar warning system known as Shakhar Adom, or ‘red dawn,’ which sounds an alarm throughout the town when a rocket is inbound. In 2007, the name was changed to Tseva Adom, or ‘red color,’ after a seven-year-old Israeli girl named Shakhar complained. Once the alarm begins, people typically have 15 seconds to find shelter before the rocket makes impact. Residents determine ahead of time which parts of their houses are safest, and the town map is dotted with public bomb shelters. The use of seat belts is forbidden in Sderot. Those 15 seconds are too precious. No one showers or listens to headphones in their houses unless someone else is home to hear the alarms. Those who walk the street are reluctant to stray more than a few yards from the shelters. In 2005, the radar warning system was installed in the city of Ashkelon, which lies north of the Gaza Strip near the Mediterranean coast. Ashkelonites live further away from Gaza than Sderotites, and have 30 seconds’ warning instead of 15.

Since Operation Cast Lead, which largely wiped out the terrorist infrastructures (and significant civilian infrastructures) in Gaza, the attacks have slowed considerably, shifting the attention of the Israeli public from the rockets themselves to the effects that they’ve wrought on the people of Sderot. Particular attention has been focused on the town’s children. Nearly all of them have witnessed a rocket’s moment of impact or its immediate aftermath. According to a study performed in July of this year, 70% of Sderotite children exhibit at least one symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. Half of them periodically relive the trauma, and 40 percent suffer from hyperactivity—they are constantly alert, and the slightest disturbance makes them shudder or shake. Many of them have ADHD. In the spring of 2001, 44 percent of twelfth-graders failed to graduate from high school because of poor academic performance. The study mentions an 11-year-old girl who has been in therapy for three years to treat her severe PTSD, yet, according to her parents and therapists, her suffering has only worsened. According to one of the scientists involved in this year’s study, many children “stop playing, stop being interested in their surroundings, detach themselves from their friends and school.” He continues, “One of our newest and most interesting findings is that there is a connection between the symptoms that the parents experience and the ones their children experience.” Now, two and a half years after the rocket attacks slowed to a trickle, 33% of Sderot residents, both children and adults, suffer from clinical PTSD. 20% of children suffer from every symptom of PTSD. A quarter of the population takes anti-depressant medication. Some take sleeping pills.

There is a yawning gap between, on the one hand, this almost absurdly grim picture of a town under a stark psychological menace, and on the other, the bare casualty figures of the rocket attacks. In the last decade, 25 Israelis in the western Negev have actually been killed and about 700 injured by Qassams from Gaza, fewer in the town of Sderot itself. Those figures aren’t truly very remarkable. Casualties have been surprisingly low relative to the outright suffering of rocket survivors, largely because the technology used to launch the rockets themselves has terrible aim. Many of the rockets don’t even strike populated areas. Instead, the sight of burning cars and destroyed property, the unmistakable sound of the alarm system (a high tone, a pause, high, low, and then a female voice urging, tseva adom! tseva adom!), and the knowledge that it not only could but will happen again tomorrow—all of this imposes an unshakeable paralysis over the sunny, tree-laden town of twenty thousand people.

*              *              *

The Sderot Media Center is a nonprofit that aims to increase awareness of the Qassam attacks in the western Negev among consumers of international media, especially in Europe and the United States. It describes itself as “founded with the purpose of uncovering the voices of a population marginalized by the conflict,” and its aim is also to “promote a pro-Israel attitude in the western and international media.” Nearly every website offering information on Sderot and the Qassam saga points out, in that tone that mixes indignation with sobriety, that these facts are dramatically “underreported” in non-Israeli media.

The claim of journalistic bias hitches its wagon immediately and seamlessly to the claim of underreporting. The difference between an “unreported” datum and a “censored” one is easily elided on the basis of a century of training in mistrust of the media. This mistrust is factored into reportage itself, along with a calculus of underreportage. A fact is included out of responsibility to the reading (democratic) public, which is vulnerable to naïveté (and dangerous) if underinformed. An unobtrusive article on the Israeli-Palestine conflict, to the extent that such is possible, would take care with quantities of reportedness: “under” and “over” already designate this quantitative aspect.

But in particular, such an article would concern itself with relative quantities of reportedness. What's matters, what incites indignation, is not just underreportage of the conflict, but also relative underreportage of Israeli and of Palestinian suffering. Why? This intricacy does not follow directly from the calculus of suspicion already factored into journalism. It is a particularly agentivist modification of that suspicion: Since the violence is going unnarrated, someone must be suppressing it. Who would this “someone” be, if not an already-extant political lobby and agenda—which sides with the Israelis, which sides with the Palestinians? Not only a calculus of underreportage, but a preexisting mainstream-political rancor, which gives mistrust a face, is already factored into an unobtrusive, balanced reportage.

But a second register is at play, simultaneously, which is, if still journalistic, in goal less informative than testimonial or representational, in medium less factual than narrative. The SMC tells us that “the people under siege in Sderot and the Western Negev want to tell their story.” Story and voice remain within the same polemical field as reportage, representing facts through individual cases that can more effectively “generate empathy”—another goal of Sderot Media Center. Here not only information but also emotion is caught in the net of “balance.” Indeed, once again, we find that the calculus of balance is already factored in, not only into a critical stance towards reportage, but also into any emotion that might appear in this field. Empathies are to be balanced, one against the other, or else framed with advisory. Failure to do so will be obtrusive.

Thus our choices are given in such a way that a reader is forced to displace horror into either a formulation of judgment against one party or an expression of sorrow for both, or to deny the violence (suffered by either or both parties) through minimization and rationalization. That is, violence cannot be dwelt on. Instead, through these determinations of balance and the various subtleties in narrative tones they produce, journalism engages in one form or another of mourning that, far from “confronting” violence, brings the horror to an end by discharging its impact elsewhere, through judgment, compassion, or denial. In this light, I am compelled to look for alternatives to these expressions, to suggest a more desirable way in which to confront violence, and indeed, in which to read the stories of Sderot. To take it all in, but to recognize the tug of pathos, and to pull back on it, and thus rather than resolving the horror, hold it in suspension? To face it with incredulity, nausea, awe, pain, or catharsis? Won’t this require experimentation? And, for such a journalist, what a strange integrity!


[Austin Gross contributed to this article.]

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